Josh Hamilton's All-Star case is in the eye of the beholder

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The K.C. Star’s Sam Mellinger takes issue with folks (like me) who are scratching their heads at the Josh Hamilton selection:

Except here’s the thing: he does deserve it. He deserves it because
the fans say he does. They’re the boss, and sometimes it feels like too
many lose track of that . . . The undisputed highlight of last year’s
event was Hamilton’s jaw-dropping spectacle at the home run derby . . .
That’s what this whole thing is about, and Hamilton delivered, gave us
a moment that we remember a year later, and won’t forget 10 years from
now.

In that sense, Hamilton might be the most deserving All-Star of the bunch.

One of the reasons I try not to get too wrapped up in All-Star
arguments (apart from the fact that the All-Star game has become
something of a joke in concept and execution) is that when people argue
about the players selected, they are usually engaging in apples and
oranges comparisons. Person A thinks that Player 1 shouldn’t have been
picked because he’s not the best player at his position. Person B
thinks that Player 1 should have been picked because he’s the most
famous or popular or something. Or because he’s neither, but boy howdy
did he have a good year last year. Or because he’s about to retire and
kind of deserves a curtain call. There are any number of
justifications, really, and I’m sure you’ve heard them all before.

But those aren’t arguments, really. They’re examples of a
communication breakdown. Why? Because all of those things can be true
at the same time. The real discussion to have is not really over Player
1’s suitability or lack thereof, but what you think the All-Star Game
should be about in the first place, and that argument is often an
afterthought among those who get bent out of shape by the the All-Star
rosters.

If the All-Star Game is a true exhibition for the benefit of the
fans, great, put in Hamilton. Heck, put in Ken Griffey, Jr. for that
matter. People love those guys and on that basis they are certainly
deserving. If it’s about sheer entertainment, how do you not
have Manny Ramirez in there? Because no matter what you think of him as
a person, man, he’s entertaining. If, instead, it’s about first-half
performances none of those guys make it and Matt Kemp isn’t on
the outside looking in and hoping he makes out in the sympathy vote.
If, however, we truly believe the stuff about home field advantage and
“this time it counts!” don’t we have to scrap the
every-team-gets-a-representative rule? Maybe that would stink for Andrew Bailey, but I’m sure whoever represents the AL in the World Series this year would prefer it that way.

The point here isn’t that Josh Hamilton is or is not deserving, the
point is that the All-Star Game represents different things to
different people. Whether Hamilton deserves to be there depends on what
you think the game is all about in the first place. Here Mellinger
asserts that it’s about entertainment, and that’s fine, as long as he’s
consistent with that as it relates to the other selections. But not
everyone feels that way, and no amount of argument is going to convince
someone who thinks that the All-Star Game is a reward for a good
April-July that Hamilton should be there.

It’s probably a good idea to keep that distinction in mind as the arguments rage on through July 14th.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.